Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Rolling Minivan Gathers No Moss

Notes from Margo:

Change of itinerary: We have to return to Astoria later in the week to have the sliding door of the van repaired, so after several modifications we’ve settled on a circumnavigation of the Olympic Peninsula, north up its west side, a ferry trip from the north end to Victoria, B.C., and then down the east side.

I wanted to see the Olympic rainforest, and we did. It was another of those deals where we drove into a campsite after dark and woke up in an utterly foreign landscape. This time we were not surrounded by whalefish-sized RVs; this time we were dwarfed by moss-covered spruce and fir trees as tall as 30-story office buildings. We were agog at the size of the ferns, in a hundred shades of green. Lace lichen-type moss (that’s probably not the technical term) grew on everything, and – of course – it was raining. Not a steady rain, just on and off pattering of raindrops on the tin roof of our minivan. Enough to convince us that yes, we were in the rainforest. We were by Quinault Lake in a Forest Service campground. It was raining when we woke up, so we just drove up the road a ways and had breakfast in a little diner instead of trying to fix breakfast at our sopping wet, moss-covered picnic table.

Not that we had much of a choice, anyway. Raccoons had pretty much demolished the kitchen our last night at Fort Stevens. We had gotten lazy about packing up the food. We had had no critters at McKenzie Bridge. Our first night at Fort Stevens, the raccoons left us alone. They must have been laying the groundwork for a big kill. We had left the cooler and our food box out, with the cooler weighing down the top of the food box. I woke up in the night, hearing a commotion. My flashlight showed the beady eyes and bandit masks of two raccoons who had retreated to the edge of our clearing after trashing our campsite. I gathered our stuff as well as I could in the dark, and brought it into the van.

In the morning, we assessed the damage. They had tipped over the cooler, which allowed them access to those groceries as well as our food box. They took most of a roasted Safeway chicken, bones and all. The one-pound margarine tub, which we had just opened, was licked completely clean. They ate two boxes of cereal, a box of crackers, and another of graham crackers. They drank or poured out most of a quart of milk. Our only consolation was that the raccoons will be sick to their stomachs. Anyway: Raccoons 1, Victory Lappers 0.

So we had breakfast in a diner while the precipitation alternated between downpour and soft mist. We took a short nature walk during a break in the weather, through a Jurassic landscape of 300-foot trees and green stuff growing on everything, even the concrete bases of picnic tables (at right).

We decided in Quinault to try to make the last ferry to Victoria out of Port Angeles, a 2 p.m. sailing. So we drove most of the west and part of the north sides of the peninsula, through forests that have been harvested several times over. When we had a long view over many hillsides, we could see a dozen areas in different stages of regrowth: some recently logged and replanted with tiny little trees, some having been logged many years ago and nearly reaching maturity again. Every so often there was a recent clear-cut, looking post-apocalyptic with enormous charred stumps and the leftover slash in crazy angles.

We saw signs saying: “Third growth Douglas fir,” and one listing the years that the surrounding forest had been logged, and ending with “Next harvest, 2036.” The landscape is surprisingly beautiful, even though you get more of a feel of a tree plantation than of a forest primeval. It must be the overwhelming greenery of it all. It still looks natural. And it is. It’s just not untouched nature.

Anyway, we got to Port Angeles in good time to make the ferry, found a lot where we parked the minivan, which we’ve tentatively dubbed “The Guppy,” in honor of its stature vis-à-vis the RVs on the road. We had a windy 90-minute ferry ride and were welcomed into Canada at customs. Now we are the only guests at The Cozy Cottage B&B in Victoria, which Lynn had found by surfing the Web in San Francisco, before The Guppy embarked.

Notes from Lynn:

Is it OK to recycle a word already put to use in this journey of the unexpected? “Dumbstruck”? I’ll reverse it. I was struck dumb when Jamie and Joe Brand opened the massive doors of the 7th Street Theatre.

We stopped in Hoquiam, Washington, to say hello to Jamie, daughter of Sherry, Margo’s stepmother. With her husband, Joe, and their three young children, Jamie had moved about a year ago to this blue-collar port (population 10,000) on the forested coast of the Evergreen State. While Joe and Jamie study carpentry, they volunteered to help with operations of what was once the small city’s big movie theater. Now both are actively involved, and Joe is the board. We followed them in the dusk into one of the thousands of downtowns now ignored by residents who shop on the outskirts and go to movies at the multiplex.

The 7th Street Theatre, like the 3,000-seat El Capitan on San Francisco’s Mission Street, was built in 1928 as a combined venue for vaudeville and movies. Like the El Capitan and so many others of the 1920s, it was designed and built by admirers of Spanish Moorish architecture. Like the El Capitan, it was closed after a downturn of patronage in the 1950s. The El Capitan marquee still hovers over Mission Street, but the auditorium was demolished. It’s now a parking lot. You drive your car through what was once the elegant lobby. The 7th Street Theatre was to suffer a similar fate, Joe said, when an angel appeared in 1978. Robert Serredell and his wife, Cheryl, bought the old movie house and spent 15 years in restoration work. They lived in the old dressing rooms. It foiled those who hoped to demolish it for parking. The miracle continued when businessman Ed Bowers donated a fund to allow a group of concerned citizens to form a nonprofit corporation and continued restoration. Joe said downtown businesses are forming symbiotic relationships with the reborn theater where once Will Rogers spun ropes and stories.

How many seats? About 930, Joe said. The lobby was basically unchanged from the days of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton – with Avalon-style decorated tiles framing a water fountain. The website says, “It was the first theatre in the Northwest, and the last example, of an atmospheric theatre, that gives patrons the feeling they are sitting in an outdoor Spanish garden. The curved ceiling is painted to simulate the evening sky, complete with twinkling lights. The auditorium, designed to be acoustically perfect, shimmers with balconies, iron grilled windows, spiral columns, arched doorways, plaster urns, red tiles atop courtyard walls, with ivy and cypress trees.” Jamie said old movies are interspersed with live performances. (Glenn Yarborough played the house last month.)

We walked into the auditorium. Joe said it was designed to look like a Spanish fortress at dusk. It was time travel. We were struck dumb in Hoquiam.

Mileage the past two days: Astoria to Port Angeles, 220

Total mileage: 1060

Monday, September 28, 2009


Notes from Lynn:

A crude swastika, scratched with a sharp instrument, embellishes the inside door of the lavatory stall in the men’s room for Loop A in the campground at Fort Stevens State Park. It shouldn’t be worth mentioning, not if you’re accustomed to the casual vandalism in San Francisco and everywhere else (London, Vienna, Auckland and a lot of places I’ve visited).
In a week of travel in Oregon, from Medford to Bend to Portland and points in between, I hadn’t seen one graffito in the state’s immaculate restrooms. Not in the vault toilets at our camp in McKenzie Bridge National Forest, not in the Multmonah Branch Library in a neighborhood of modest homes in Portland, not in the Chevron gas station in Wilsonville. No tags. No pieces. No gang markers.
Were this a newspaper story instead of bloggery, I would have interviewed someone at Portland’s Department of Public Works or perhaps a Reed College authority on the vandalistic angst of juveniles or maybe a teenager on a skateboard on Burnside Street. But I didn’t. Instead, being a blogger with no obligations but to entertain, I can assert with unattributed confidence that commercial graffiti, also known as billboards, are responsible for amateur graffiti in San Francisco and elsewhere.
In Oregon, as in Hawaii, Vermont and any community with million-dollar homes, billboards are so tightly regulated that the roads are uncluttered with commercial graffiti. And if you don’t believe that billboards cause graffiti, well, you can interview the experts yourself.
As for the swastika, someone else had scratched “my girlfriend is sexy” in the upper right arm and, above the lower right leg of the ultimate symbol of hatred, “God is Love.” Below is a carefully embellished “PEACE.”

Thank the Great Spirit for global warming. We visited Fort Clatsop on a perfect September day, the seventh in a series. (The photo at the top of this post is Lynn at Fort Clatsop.) We learned that Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and the Corps of Discovery spent four months at the log outpost in a winter of unrelenting rain. Permanent shelters protect picnic tables in Astoria, and umbrellas are handy everywhere in a state where the leading university’s athletes are known as the Ducks. As for our own Corps of Discovery, we need to buy more sunblock.

We visited the wreck of the Peter Iredale, one of 200 ships that have sunk or run aground in these treacherous waters over the past 150 years. (At right, Lynn studies the wreckage.)

Notes from Margo:

We spent a day seeing the sights in and around Astoria. At Fort Clatsop, we tarried over wonderful exhibits about the Corps of Discovery’s time here in the rain in 1805. One notable fact that I hadn’t known before, despite my reading, was that Lewis’ servant, York, was a slave whom he freed a few years after the expedition. The Indians along much of the route were fascinated by York; one tribe thought he might have been a human incarnation of a bison, which they had been praying and singing for. Anyway, that was news to me.

We also climbed the Astoria Column, built in 1926, modeled on Trajan’s Column and set on a hilltop above the town named for John Jacob Astor. The column has the history of Oregon, rather than of Rome, spiraling up the outside. From the viewing platform, we could see for miles – Cape Disappointment, the sand spits on both sides of the mouth of the Columbia River, the hills inland and south. It was spectacular! And we found out how the locals induce their kids to cheerfully climb about five stories up in a steep spiral staircase – they let ‘em throw little balsa wood airplanes off the viewing platform. We watched with the same glee as the kids as the planes drifted downward slowly, circling on the air currents until they crashed in the carefully groomed lawn below.

We’re having our first car trouble – the sliding side door of the van is stubbornly stuck open. So today, on Yom Kippur, we're at the Toyota dealership conveniently located near the Fort Stevens campground, getting the bad news about ordering parts and finding an appointment in their service calendar. Our itinerary is about to be modified.

Milage today: 10

Total mileage: 840

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The City of Books

Notes from Margo (with Lynn):

Our first agenda item in Portland was to visit with Barry Locke, a former student of Lynn’s at SF State and a solid pickup basketball player. After covering the Giants for the Hayward Review and its sister papers, he moved to Portland. He worked for Nike, edited a newsletter for employees and traveled the world. No business like shoe business. Then, as he put it, they granted his release. It was generous. He smiles. Temporary joblessness didn’t stop Barry from getting married three weeks ago. He had only one day before the happy couple was to depart for their honeymoon in Italy. He had to pick up his newly acquired stepsons at school, so he suggested meeting for lunch at the Kennedy School. It’s an old-time elementary school that was saved from the bulldozers and refurbished by the McMenamin brothers (more on this later).

But before meeting Barry, Lynn needed to see the world’s most amazing bookstore. I had seen it when Kenny and I (and our friends Beth and Hanna) had come to Portland to look at colleges last year. Powell’s City of Books takes up a city block. So I knew that for Lynn, a book worshipper, this would be one of the wonders of the world. And Lynn wanted to give Barry the first of Donna Leon’s mysteries set in Venice. We found Powell’s with the amazing little GPS thing in my iPhone, and Lynn was suitably impressed – room after room of mysteries, histories, fiction, poetry, metaphysics, cookbooks, gardening, sports, biographies, books on tape, books on CD, self-help books, kids books. The red room, the purple room, the orange room: The place is so big there’s a booklet with a map of the store. Lynn said he wants to live here – not in Portland, just in the bookstore. In the end, the Donna Leon book was duly purchased, and Lynn was dragged away from the store.

So we met Barry for lunch at the Kennedy School. It was amazing – a beautiful 1915 building converted into a complex with a restaurant, brew pub, small movie theater, a “soaking pool,” meeting rooms, a B&B. Really nicely done. The brothers have done well, refurbishing older buildings and serving good food and good beer at reasonable prices. They now have about 50 properties in the Portland area and elsewhere in Oregon and Washington. Mostly old buildings, they have been turned into brew-pubs, restaurants, centers for community gatherings. We were impressed. The Kennedy School has murals and mosaics on the walls and lots of fanciful artwork. Some is in keeping with the old elementary school feel, and some is whimsical stuff that really had nothing to do with the past. It was charming and the food was good and not expensive at all.

It was great to see Barry – he was happy and optimistic in a ready-for-a-honeymoon kind of way.

Barry batted two-for-two in his suggestions for our stay in Portland. One was McMenamins. And the second was the daily sundown show of thousands of Vaux’s swifts swirling in a vortex over the Chapman School, funneling themselves into its smokestack-chimney to roost for the night. Bingo!! Make a birder happy.

I had actually studied this behavior in my ornithology class last year. Thousands of the birds roost in the chimney of the school in the month of September. Around sunset they gather, flying above the chimney and appear to form a vortex as they go in for the night. Thousands of people come to watch. So we went, me because I really was interested in the phenomenon, and Lynn because he’s being a sport. It’s enough of a scene that there are informational placards on the hillside where the watchers congregate, telling us what we need to know about swifts: Each tiny bird eats up to 5,000 insects a day. They construct their nests of spit. (I remember that from class.) They eat in flight, they can sleep in flight, they copulate in flight. Their feet are not adapted to grasping branches, so they cling to tree trunks or rock walls, which is what they do inside the chimney, they cling to the walls. Thousands and thousands of them.

Anyway, there we were on the little hillside in the schoolyard waiting for sunset with hundreds of families – kids, parents, grandparents, babies, young people on dates. Picnic dinners were spread out – deli takeout food, wine, juice, sippy cups, sandwiches, pizzas, the works. As the sun went down, the birds, amazingly agile in the air, arrived – swooping and swirling around the chimney, circling above the rim. Just a few at first, then more. Then more. And then after a while, they formed a swirling maelstrom of birds and went in the chimney. The show was interupted twice by some sort of hawk that swooped through and snared a swift for dinner. I heard a father tell a kid nearby: “Nature in action.” It was amazing really – the swifts’ show, the scene of people watching, and even the fact that there weren’t more hawks taking advantage of such a ready supply of tiny birds to eat.

We stayed two days in Vancouver, Washington, (just across the river north of Portland) with Lynn’s 87-year-old uncle, Richard. He’s a retired pastor in an evangelical community church. We’ve visited with him a number of times in our home in San Francisco but had never seen him in his native habitat. He was beyond gracious – really, really kind and welcoming – to his nephew, whose religious beliefs could not be further afield from his own, and his nephew’s wife, from the stiff-necked tribe of people, the Jews, who have never accepted the word of the gospels.

He welcomed us into his home and fed us a meal that would be the dream of any local/organic/slow food enthusiast. Corn from his garden, which we could see growing outside in the yard; salad and zucchini, also from his garden; and salmon caught in the Columbia River by a neighbor.

We saw the sights of Vancouver with him, but really the highlight was seeing the Glenwood Community Church, where he spent most of his years ministering. The church has grown tremendously. Now 1,200 to 1,400 people attend the two weekly Sunday services. Uncle Richard took us to the new church buiding, with 20 acres of land around it, a huge beautiful sanctuary, three floors that hold the offices and Sunday school rooms, the library, the youth ministry, the kitchen, the whole works. They have classes, support groups, Bible study, men’s groups, women’s groups, a quilting group, missionaries – dozens of ways to get involved. And Uncle Richard introduced us around to these people who have been his world all these years, and they clearly love and respect him a great deal. They credit him (and God, of course) with the church’s growth and success. It was beautiful.

Uncle Richard says grace before every meal. His prayers thank God for the food, but he starts by thanking God for the people at the table, the fellowship, the health and safety of the people at the table, and their loved ones. Food is wonderful, and we’re thankful for that. But we are really thankful that our loved ones are here. And safe. And healthy.

We said a farewell to Richard this morning, and headed north and west to the end of the Columbia River, where the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Corps of Discovery, finally found the Pacific in the winter of 1805. Lynn and I both read the book “Undaunted Courage,” so we’re interested in the Lewis and Clark sites. We’re camped for the night at the Fort Stevens State Park campground at the mouth of the Columbia River, probably the only site in the area where the Corps didn’t camp. Oh well.

When we paid for our spot, the parks guy told us cheerfully: “The biggest campground west of the Mississippi, 530 spots.” Yup. Full hook-ups, rustic sites, even some handicapped accessible yurts. We were afraid it would be laid out like a big noisy parking lot crammed with tents, camper trucks and RVs. But our site is lovely, surrounded by ferns and mature fir trees. There may well be 530 sites here, but we can only see a few, and the only sound at the moment is the wind in the trees.

Mileage today: Vancouver, Wa., to Astoria, Or.: 97 miles

Total mileage: 830 miles

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Guppy Among the Whalefish

Notes from Lynn:

Like a guppy in a school of whalefish, our minicamper swam into Pad No. 97. With no public campgrounds near Portland (a common failing in big cities), the Pheasant Ridge RV Resort beckoned from the pages of the AAA Northwest Campbook. We were in Wilsonville, a Portland suburb, and this would be our first visit to one of thousands of commercial encampments for houses with tires. It was dark. We paid $33, keyed the security code into the shower room, brushed our teeth, lowered our curtains and crawled into our tiny nest. At daybreak, a whole new world came into view. We were awestricken.

A self-propelled motor home sprawled on a nearby pad. As long as a 1947 crackerbox bungalow, about 45 feet, it stood at least 12 feet high. Pop-out bays enhanced its 10-foot width. Its name would have been appropriate for a schooner. Across the little street, the morning sun gleamed on the stern of another fat motor home, an Escalade. It was gold, of course. A behemoth house trailer, called Alumascape, appeared to be hitched – improbably – to a Mustang convertible. Scores of motor homes were as big as Greyhound buses. (On the right, a Phaeton.)

In a big corral with 133 pads and few vacancies, assuming an average evaluation of maybe $50,000 per RV (probably on the low side), the Pheasant Ridge adventurers had more than $6 million tied up in their Bluebirds, Allegros, Gulfstreams, Pathfinders and Newells. We saw Komfort, Mountain Aire and Monaco. We saw Phaeton, Bigfoot and Winnebago Adventure. We even saw one lonely Airstream. But we didn’t see any people until a man from Rexburg, Idaho, emerged from his Arctic Fox truck camper. He explained that he and his wife take off about one weekend every month. Usually it’s with a friend from Idaho Falls, also driving an Arctic Fox. Both are retired businessmen, genial and untroubled.

The RV world would seem to offer liberty and freedom, but you couldn’t tell it from the dozens of rules for good behavior at Pheasant Ridge: No double parking, no parking on the grass strips, no "head-in" parking in the lot, absolutely no pets of more than 40 pounds, no kids or pregnant women in the spa, no clotheslines, no mechanical repairs, no “kitchen waste” in the garbage cans, no open fires, no car washing, no skateboards or rollerblades, etc. etc. Before anyone could say no minivans, we wiggled past the leviathans and out into Interstate 5’s river of cars.

In Portland, no parking meters. Instead, you pump your quarters – or your debit card – into a nearby machine. It disgorges a piece of paper about the size of a playing card. It’s imprinted with the amount, the time and the expiration. You stick it to the inside of the window on the curb. Ingenious.
At Portland’s Jefferson High School, a big sign says “Home of the Demos.”

Note from Margo:

Everything’s relative.

At the Diamond Lake campground, before our lesson on whalefish, Lynn and I were commenting on an RV-style trailer in a neighboring campsite – it was about 35 feet long, had three pop-out rooms on its sides, and a satellite TV dish on the back. It seemed like a lot for camping. Later, I was talking with the owner as he walked his Pomeranian in the morning. Turns out he and his wife sold their house, and they live full-time in the trailer. Very big for camping. Pretty small for a house. Everything’s relative.

Several months before this trip, I was on a week-long backpack in the Sierra, carrying pretty much the bare minimum. While Lynn and I were packing for this trip, I kept telling him we were bringing way too much stuff. He kept pointing out, “We are not backpacking.” What would be an impossible load in a backpack is traveling pretty light in a car. Everything’s relative.

When we stayed overnight at the Aaslands’ house in Bend, Oregon, they put us up in a queen-size bed, the same size we have at home. After sleeping for several nights in the little coccoon-size bed in the minivan, the queen bed felt like sleeping on a baseball field. I felt like yelling over to Lynn’s side of the bed: “How’re you doing over there?” It’s all relative.

Mileage today (actually yesterday): Wilsonville to Vancouver, Wa.: 29

Total mileage: 733

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Land of Aasland

Notes from Lynn:

The intimidating but luxurious Cadillac town car was getting on in years. It was so old that the front fenders encased the spare tires, which in 1955 was 20 years out of fashion. It didn’t matter. Marilyn was silently impressed when the chauffeur bobbed his cap and opened the door. The beautiful young woman had come to Monterey all the way from Phoenix to see her sweetheart. Her fiancé, Cpl. Duane Aasland (pronounced “Oz-land”), who was doing time at Fort Ord, climbed in the back seat. To the chauffeur he said, politely but imperiously, “We’d like to go to Carmel Valley, to the Carousel, for dinner.” “Yes sir,” said the driver. He put the big car in gear and off they went. At the restaurant, the chauffeur sat at a faraway table. When he drove Marilyn to her hotel, Duane made a point of saying, as in the movies, “Home, James.”

Fifty-three years later, we sat at their table in Bend, still laughing. Yes, said Marilyn Aasland, she was taken for a ride. Duane confessed that the chauffeur was another draftee. Me. A fellow sufferer at the Fort Ord basic infantry training base, I had just bought the mini-limo for $100 from a girlfriend in Berkeley. With a straight-eight engine and a block the size of a Fiat, the stately town car got about 8 miles to the gallon. On the one hand, a gallon of gas in 1955 cost 25 cents. On the other hand, a private soldier was paid about $80 a month in those not-so-good-old-days of yesteryear. Marilyn and Duane were soon married in Arizona. The chauffeur was best man.

When we got together more than a half-century later, Duane had lost the slim, athletic build that carried him to letter in three sports at his Minnesota high school. (My slim build is also a memory.) His Norwegian blond hair is now gray, but it’s still trimmed in a Fort Ord crewcut. (My Norwegian blond hair is now brown and thin, but my whiskers are as gray as the fog.) We caught up on more substantial changes. After they married, Marilyn and Duane taught school in San Francisco (Hunters Point and the Fillmore, respectively). They became enduring fans of Turk Murphy and other ensemble-heavy New Orleans traditional jazz bands (they never miss the Sacramento jazz festival). They moved to the Peninsula, where Duane sold real estate, and then to Sacramento, where Marilyn became a librarian. He crossed over: He became an investigator and then an enforcement administrator in the state Department of Real Estate. He was instrumental in several major crackdowns involving developers of illegal subdivisions and rural lot-sales promotions. By coincidence, I had produced in the Examiner a series of investigative reports on similar smooth-talking thieves (“Boom in the Boondocks,” which prompted reform legislation). By then, however, we had lost touch.

After they retired and their children were grown, they moved to Newport, Oregon, and then to the high desert and the juniper groves of Bend. It’s a pretty city of 80,000 with no graffiti, no commercial graffiti (billboards), no visible trash, no visible mendicants and, with the collapse of the local real estate boom, no jobs.

In our Army days we would talk about sports, books, politics, the mess hall cuisine or the hostility of Carmel pubs toward soldier boys. Around the table in the Aasland home, we septuagenarians talked instead – naturally – about health issues: Marilyn, breast cancer; Duane, prostate cancer and the broken neck when his car was rear-ended by a truck. But the cancers prompted their move six years ago to Bend, where they found oncologists of superior ability. As expected, the Norwegian-Americans spoke without drama or self-pity about their problems. Instead, they expressed sympathy about my heart attacks and the stroke that damaged my speech and sense of balance. But all three of us have survived to pursue our own interests, me to work (slowly) on a true-crime book, they to become avid collectors.

Marilyn with obvious pride showed us a shelf of little porcelain houses in an idealized Dickens Village of horse-drawn carriages, top-hatted strollers and churches. Every place but Bleak House. Then another shelf, and another, and another. Every flat space held more creations in 19th century British themes – Christmas, farms, pubs, abbeys – and most of their tiny windows could be gleaming with light. She said she had collected about 135 (they aren’t cheap) before she went cold turkey a few years ago and stopped collecting. Nonetheless, about 120 houses and related artifacts are on display, enriching their home with fantasy. As for Duane, he began to collect porcelain lighthouses, but then concentrated on German beer steins with all kinds of embellishments. He has about 800!

As for the 1936 Cadillac, I sold it to a captain in the Flying 63rd in the sprawling Army base with 20,000 recruits and 10,000 cadre. I told Duane that two years ago we drove our daughter Kenny to a preseason basketball tournament. It was held in a former Army gym in what is now a state university campus, an environmental center and an assemblage of civilian facilities. The dunes, with bullets from the old rifle ranges, are being converted into a federal beach park. What’s left are the old barracks and the stockade in a sword-into-plowshares transformation still called Fort Ord. The Army pulled out several years ago, leaving Marilyn, Duane and me with only memories of the fake chauffeur and the ancient Cadillac town car.

Notes from Margo:

Day 7: We slept another night in our cocoon-sized bed in the minivan at the McKenzie Bridge campground. Then we spent most of the day at Joan and Hector’s house, on the deck overlooking the river. We could get used to this – the soothing sound of the river, the light through the trees.

Joan and Hector were gone for the day, but Joan had said that we could use their outdoor electric outlets to recharge our phones, the computer, the camera, all the electronic gear that keeps us going, which was all getting run down at the campground. We have a little recharger that plugs into the car’s cigarette lighter, but it’s proving insufficient for our gadgets. When we’re camping, we don’t have internet access, either. So we’ve been finding internet cafes along the way. Today we recharged our equipment at Joan and Hector’s, and Lynn spent some time working on his piece about the Aaslands. And then we went down to the general store, where the manager was letting us use the wi-fi.

At the general store, while we were posting yesterday’s blog, a woman introduced us to Nancy McClure, who was one of the links in the chain of our wwww search. She's been in residence at McKenzie Bridge since 1936. She just happened to be at a table outside the store, drinking ice tea. She was the friend whom Joan had called. She hadn’t remembered Ida Ludlow, but she called her cousin, who did remember, and who was the one who identified the house. Anyway, it was cool to meet her and some of the other older folks who hang out at the general store.

Lynn quizzed the oldsters about where someone like Ida would have been buried, and they steered us to the cemetery in Vida. Just about 10 miles down the road, they said. They gave us detailed instructions: Look for a canal, and Greenwood Road on the left, etc. So down the road we went, thinking that we might find Ida’s grave, and maybe even William’s, the boy who had been killed by the tree. (Nancy McClure said that her cousin thought Lynn’s uncle was killed when a road-building Caterpillar rolled on him while he was working for the CCC. But that’s not our family story.)

We drove 10 miles, and then another 10 miles, and then some more. We had both given up when the canal appeared, and the road was right where they said it’d be. We found the cemetery, a tiny little community affair with hand-painted signs with the rules – no big shrubs or trees, call before digging a grave, no backhoes. One of the posted rules was that if the maintenance fees aren’t paid for 10 years, the plot reverts to the cemetery association. So, it was immediately evident that even if Ida and Billy had been buried there, we wouldn’t find their headstones. We looked anyway, of course. But we struck out.

We were already most of the way to Eugene, so we followed the path of least resistance and funneled ourselves onto I-5 with the rest of the traffic. (We had planned another route from McKenzie Bridge, which would have minimized the freeway miles.) There was a haze over everything most of the day – thick enough that I thought it was clouding up to rain. The haze is from wildfires burning in the hills near Roseburg. The sunset was a brilliant reddish-orange. On the other hand, I’m pretty congested, and Lynn’s persistent cough is worse than usual.

The miles clicked off, and we were welcomed by a cheerful sign into Linn County, the grass seed captial of the world. Dang! Who knew? Linn County was lovely from the freeway as the sun went down – smooth fields, lazy cattle, hundreds of goats and sheep, rolling hills in the distance, some geese in formation circling to land for the night. After dark, we found an RV park in Wilsonville just off the freeway, a far cry from our sweet riverside campground. But showers were our priority – we were both feeling the need after two days of driving and bicycling in the heat and camping without running water.

Mileage today: McKenzie Bridge to Wilsonville, Oregon. 140 miles

Total mileage: 704

Price of gas (in Salem, Oregon): $2.87/gallon

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Roadside Distractions

Notes from Lynn:

Mary (McGrath) Blyskal, experienced at cross-country travel, sends advance warnings of unexpected sightings. Included is a hard-to-believe finding. She says today’s reincarnation of Randolph Scott may have abandoned the traditional pot of cowboy coffee, an acidulous concoction boiled on an open fire with eggshells to sink the grounds. Instead, "Don’t-Call-Me-Perky" Mary strains credulity: “ You’ll notice that in cowboy country, hand-painted signs along the prairie highway advertise ‘espresso and cappuccino – 5 miles ahead.’ ”
In keeping with our pledge to stop for roadside attractions, we hit the brakes when passing through Chemult, Oregon, a wide spot on U.S. 97 just past the wide spot called, inaccurately, Beaver Marsh, and 35 miles south of what would seem to be a French-American colony, La Pine. On the right was a genuine roadside attraction, the Chemult MIA/POW Memorial Park which, measuring about 25 by 20 feet, is probably the smallest park on the planet. It had a picnic table and a spray-painted sign, “We Buy Mushroom.”
The park was next to D&D Market, a cluttered old-time general store among the auto body shops and burger places with hand-painted signs. Outside was a figure that appeared at first glance to be cowboy with a revolver on a gunbelt, a stocking-type mask around his face, hiking boots and a jockstrap on the outside of his bicycling tights. Oh. It was a mannikin with a toy pistol. And the neon sign in the D&D window said, “Espresso.”

Notes from Margo (with Lynn):

Just to catch up on the ground miles, up to Days 5 & 6 of our Victory Lap: We drove from Medford to Bend, Oregon, where we had a warm welcome from Duane and Marilyn Aasland. Lynn was best man at their wedding in Phoenix in 1955. Lynn and Duane figured they had seen each other a few times since then, but it had been a long, long time. Along with their barracks mate, Eugene Blank, they made an inseparable trio as Army draftees at Fort Ord, near Monterey, in 1954 and 1955. I’ve heard stories for years about the three of them finagling ways to meet girls (including signing up for small parts in community theater) and various high-jinks in the deep fog of the Monterey Peninsula. But, within a few years of their discharge, Gene died of cancer at age 23 The other two guys fell out of touch. But not all the way.

For the 20 years that Lynn and I have been married, Duane and Marilyn Aasland were the first names on our annual winter holiday mailing list, which was arranged alphabetically. I had never met them, but Lynn always sent them our updates. So… this was one non-negotiable stop on our Victory Lap. Lynn will write later about how it felt to see his best buddy from those years again after such a long time. But from my view, from the passenger seat, it looked pretty cool. We had a lovely visit in Bend, with photos of Lynn and Duane and Marilyn from the wedding, all strapping and youthful. And then photos of the children and grandchildren, and it looks like Duane and Lynn are running neck and neck with one great-grandchild apiece.

We saw a little black castle as we drove west toward McKenzie Bridge on State Route 242 after leaving Bend. At McKenzie Pass, on a volcanic moonscape braided with rivers of gray-black lava rocks amid the green Oregon forests, the castle tower was another one of those completely unexpected treats. We pulled over to climb the rocky hillock mound to the Dee Wright Observatory, built in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and named for a Forest Service ranger. The walls, made of the local black lava rocks, were pierced with little portholes that directed you to the views of the nearby mountains: the Sisters, Mt. Washingtion, Mt. Jefferson.

Our mission in McKenzie Bridge was to find the house where Lynn’s father, John, grew up in the 1920s. We found a riverside campsite and set up among 125-foot firs, their branches shrouded from top to bottom with dreadlocks of lace lichen (like Spanish moss).

John’s father, Ernest Talma Ludlow, had left the family in Eugene. The reasons are lost in the mists of time. John and his three brothers moved to a rustic cabin here with their mother, Lynn’s grandmother, Ida Braastad Ludlow. After the older boys grew up and left home, Ida lived here until she died in 1950. John’s beloved younger brother, Billy, a student at the University of Oregon, didn’t make it. William was asleep in a shed next to the cabin in McKenzie Bridge when a tree fell and killed him.

An odd aside about McKenzie Bridge: In addition to Lynn’s father’s connection here, Lynn’s mother, Melda, was 3 years old when she accompanied her family from
Eugene on a Labor Day outing in 1914 – years before Ida moved here.. We have a picture of the picnic – old-fashioned tents set up in a clearing in a forest that looks just like our campground by the McKenzie River. Melda’s mother, Lillian Hull Schwab, looks a bit queasy in the photo. It turned out that she was just getting ill with appendicitis. The family took her back to Eugene – 50 miles of agony in a horse-drawn wagon – and she had the surgery, but died anyway. She’s buried in Pioneer Cemetery at the edge of the University of Oregon campus. So both sides of Lynn’s family have a connection to McKenzie Bridge, a scattering of summer homes along the beautiful riffles of a fast-moving river that attracts fly fishermen from all over the West.

We had come up to McKenzie Bridge once before to look for Ida’s house, and had struck out. That was no surprise, really -- we had just stopped by the General Store (established 1900) and asked the guy at the counter if he knew of a woman named Ida who had died 55 years before. He was bemused. So… this time we did a little preparatory groundwork. It was mostly dumb luck. We had a lot of aid from the wwww, the women’s world wide web, which preceded the www and still rules in some circles. The women’s web went like this: In Berkeley, Lynn’s daughter Amy talked to a fellow soccer mom, Barbara Leslie, whose family has lived on and off in McKenzie Bridge for many years. Barbara talked to her mother, Joan, who lived for years in Orinda and had moved to her family home in McKenzie Bridge. Joan talked to a friend, a woman about 90 years old who has lived in the area most of her life. She remembered Ida Braastad Ludlow and her four sons, one of whom had died in a terrible accident. Bingo. (Credit where credit is due: Joan says there was one man in the wwww chain of information.)

Amy gave us Joan’s phone number. She and her husband Hector welcomed us into their home next to the river and were willing to spend most of the morning with us, talking about families and McKenzie Bridge. Joan then got in her car and led us to the home on Horse Creek Road where her friend said that Ida Ludlow had lived. We went up to the house and talked to the people who live on the property. They’ve lived there since the 50s, and don’t know who was there in the 20s, 30s and 40s, when Ida would have been here. But they were awfully nice, and suggested that we look on the Internet for the public records of Lane County, now that we have the address. Could work. We’ll see. Anyway, that was exciting.

So now we’re back at this lovely Forest Service campground, by the river where Lynn’s maternal grandmother Lillian had her last picnic, where Lynn’s paternal grandmother Ida lived out her days after her husband left, where Ida raised her four boys, and where one of those boys died young.

Mileage today (actually yesterday): Bend to McKenzie Bridge, 76 miles

Total mileage: 564

Monday, September 21, 2009


Notes from Margo:

We’re out of our own neighborhood now – in Oregon, camped at Diamond Lake (above with Mt. Theilsen). We could tell we’d left the neighborhood because we didn’t know the rules or the names of the players. We thought we would camp at Crater Lake, where we’ve visited briefly before. Turns out that camping is not allowed near the shores. Makes sense, really. The lake is so pure and unpolluted that it needs to be protected from campers. We get that – we stopped to marvel at the clarity of the blues in the water. And then carried on to the next lake northward, Diamond Lake, which of course is a gem. I took a bike ride on the paved bike path through the woods on the edge of the water while Lynn set up camp.

And the players’ names are all different in the next ‘hood north. We were on a quest for groceries this morning, looking for Safeway or Albertsons. Struck out, because the food was in a Fred Meyers store. We finally found it when Lynn spotted grocery carts in a parking lot – “That HAS to be a grocery store!” And, by George, it was.

The highway from Medford to Crater Lake (at left) meandered up the Rogue River valley for about 40 or 50 miles of conifer and oak forests, with regular vistas of the shallow wide river rippling along. Campgrounds seemed to come up about every five miles – each one as enticing as the next. If we didn’t have a bit of an itinerary, any would have been a fine riverside spot for the night. Our goal is to visit an old Army buddy of Lynn’s, Duane Aasland, in Bend, Oregon, tomorrow. They haven’t seen each other since the 1950s.

We set up our camp gear for the first time on this trip, cooked up some tortellini and marinara sauce, a salad, some chicken sausages. And now Lynn is playing the mandolin by a little camp fire. That’s the life.

Footnote from Margo:

Today (this was actually written several days ago because we don't always have internet access) was a little odd for me – it was Rosh Hashana, and for the first time in many years, I was not in synagogue, singing with the choir. We lit a match last night, being out of candles, and I said a few prayers as the holiday began. And this morning, knowing that the whole rest of the Jewish world was at temple and I was driving up Highway 62, well, I felt a bit out of focus. Kenny called to say she’d been to services. She went with her friends Anabel and Hannah, and they all felt a bit sad and homesick, their first Rosh Hashana away from their families. In addition, both Kenny and Anabel needed to say Kaddish for beloved relatives who passed away this year, Anabel’s great-aunt Judy, and our cousin Berta. So that was sad, too. But it was sweet to talk to her, our college freshman 2,200 miles away, seeming so close by cell phone.

Mileage today: Medford, Oregon, to Diamond Lake: 96 miles

Total mileage: 488

Price of gas (at Crater Lake Resort): $3.05

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Seeking the Yreka Bakery in A Toyota

Notes from Lynn:
Any serious seeker of palindromes would envy us as we motored past Weed (refraining from pot jokes) and into the historic but depopulated downtown of Yreka. Margo asked two older ladies in the coffee shop if they could locate the Yreka Bakery. It used to be right up the street, we were told, the shop with the blue awning. But the original owners had sold it, and the new owners couldn’t make a go of it -- and that was 10 or 20 years ago. This is surprising. After all, we noted, it’s famous in the palindrome world. Although both women are longtime inhabitants, they looked blank. Yreka Bakery, we said, is spelled backward as Yreka Bakery. Oh.
As we left the coffee shop, Margo was compelled to add a note of realism. The palindrome world, she said gently, would be lucky to have a population of, say, 20 or so. Able was I ere saw Yreka.

Notes from Margo (and Lynn):
We stopped today at the Sundial Bridge in Redding – a spectacular white metal and glass footbridge over the shallow, rippling Sacramento River. Lynn learned that the span was built in 2004 as part of a park and educational project called Turtle Bay, perhaps an inducement to draw visitors to a city seldom noted as a tourist town. We didn’t see many tourists, and even the turtles are on holiday. But the boosters are right. The imaginative design of the suspension bridge ends in a single leaning tower on the north bank. Fourteen cables at 45 degrees hold up the broad walkway. The tower throws its shadow landward on a white-tiled berm, a giant sundial with a series of cast-metal markers, as the tower’s shadow moves across a well-tended lawn. The markers are labeled: 1 o’clock, 1:15, 1:30, 1:45, 2 o’clock, etc.
It was blazing hot, of course, mid-day in mid-September in the upper Sacramento Valley. A pair of young men sat on the berm at the point labeled 1:45, the only place in the shade at 1:45 p.m. So as we walked by, one of them says, “We’re on time.” And we all laughed.

Footnote from Margo:
I guess it’s more a commentary on Lynn than on our itinerary that the highlight of the day was an unsuccessful search for a palindrome. Today took us from the Central Valley’s varied fields and orchards through the dramatic volcanic scenery of Mount Shasta. (Even now, at the end of the summer, approaching the equinox, some small patches of snow clung to the upper flanks of the mountain. It was probably 100 degrees down where we were, 8,000 feet or so below.) We then drove past the ranchlands of Scott Valley and over the long steep grades flanked by mixed conifer forests that took us out of California and into Oregon. But, yeah, the Yreka Bakery of the distant past was a highlight. Our goal today was Medford, where a former colleague from the newspaper now lives. We had dinner and traded stories for a most of the evening. Dorothy Kantor, who lives in an immaculate house with her magical, well-tended garden, has been away from the Bay Area for about five years. So I’m wondering what the evenings will be like when we visit with people whom Lynn hasn’t seen since the 1950s.

Mileage today: 241 miles, Oroville, California, to Medford, Oregon.

Total mileage: 392 miles

Price of gas (in Redding): $3.19

Notable: In Los Molinas, a town along Highway 99’s two-lane stretch north of Chico, we saw a sort of home-made fashion store (pictured at left). Apparently it had already closed down, but the sign was still there, evidence of a proprietor with more in the way of bravado and hope than graphic skills. Also sighted: “State of Jefferson” on an old barn.

Notable II
: We cruised old downtown Oroville looking for an internet café to upload our weblog, and found several to choose from in a revitalized booming little town. A decade ago, the brick and wood-sided buildings that date from the Gold Rush were boarded over and empty, and the downtown was moribund as the trade headed for the chain stores on the edges of town. Today, somehow, even as the chain stores proliferate, small businesses, art galleries, coffee shops have renewed the downtown. It wasn’t exactly jumpin’, but it looked good, and the gapped-tooth look of the dying downtown was gone.

Friday, September 18, 2009

On the Road

Notes from Margo:

First day on the road – the familiar exit from San Francisco in the evening rush hour traffic. How we ended up leaving home yesterday late enough to catch the evening rush hour is a long and familiar story… all the last-minute chores: the outgoing message for the answer machine, clean sheets for the new tenant, stopping the newspaper. In addition, there were less familiar chores: Lynn wanted to send an e-mail to friends announcing our departure, and to alert them to watch our blog for details, and I was still tinkering around, trying to make an awning for the side of the van.

But we inched along across the Bay Bridge, and reveled in the beauty that is the bay, which we could actually see from the minivan. Our Volvo, which we’ve driven for the last 10 years, is so low to the ground that there is no view as you cross the bridge. We’re a few inches higher in the Previa, and we are loving it. Treasure Island, Angel Island, the huge cranes (cargo-loading, not whooping) in Oakland’s port.

Our destination for the first night was my father and stepmother’s home in Oroville, county seat of Butte County. So we went up Highway 113 and then north on 99, through orchards and rice fields.

The rice fields are brilliantly green-yellow now, just before harvesting. Lynn said, “Is that chartreuse?” I said, “Yes, I think it is. But chartreuse is really a fashion color, not an agricultural color.”

I was looking out the car window and thinking how lovely the fields were, and Lynn said, “Man! It’s beautiful here!” And we both kind of laughed, because for some people, this is just the flat stuff you drive through to get to the mountains, but we both love the variety, the richness of the land.

I was thinking it’s like those boxed foods: “Just add water.” One field would be completely bleached out, parched and dead. And right next to it, there’s a deep green rich crop of alfalfa or rice or a whole field of sunflowers turning in unison to the sun. The land is so rich, you just add water. Lynn said, “… And fertilzer, and pesticides, and seeds, and back-breaking labor…” Oh, yeah, maybe a little more than just water.

So we rolled up to the modest cat-rich house in Oroville where my folks live. We caught up a little bit and went out to dinner at Francisco’s, where we often go. Lynn pointed out that it’s the only Mexican restaurant on the planet where you have to order your tortillas as an extra item.

Footnote from Lynn:

We like to talk about back roads, but we tell ourselves that we’re in a hurry. We were happy to leave I-80 and the freeway’s roadside colonies of Chevys, Walgreens, Kragens and brightly bannered auto malls. As soon as we turned north on State Highway 113, a banquet of vistas was set on a table of fields as level as the Bonneville Salt Flats – but with 11 shades of green. The minivan’s big windshield gave us an ever-changing diorama of valley oaks, field corn, baby nut trees with white stockings, the rich black soil of fallow fields, lazy dairy cattle and skinny goats, produce stands and farm towns too small to have their Main Streets blighted by Walmart and Home Depot. In one ebullient burg, we saw a archway over the street leading to “Historic Downtown Gridley.”

Mileage today: 151 miles, San Francisco to Oroville

Total mileage: 151

Notable sighting: The Sutter Buttes, hazy in the distance, the nation’s smallest mountain range.

Notable sighting II: Rows and rows of clunkers neatly lined up next to a car dealership on Interstate 80 near Vacaville. We knew they were clunkers because someone had carefully lettered in huge script on each windsheild: “Clunker.” It’s the script you usually associate with “Low mileage!” or “Runs great!” New situations demand that our traditions evolve.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Countdown to Launch

Notes from Margo:

We're calling it our "Victory Lap."

The nest is newly empty, with Kenny, our baby girl, off to college. We're celebrating -- or is it mourning? -- with a road trip, a big one, a huge circle around the country. We're thinking of the track stars who grab a flag, and wave it over their heads as they lope around the track one more time, reveling in a job well done, maybe having set a record. We haven’t set any records, just the normal 18 years. We're just noting that we gave it our best shot and produced a family we're proud of. Now we have time to relax a bit.

The plan is to start at our home on San Francisco's Bernal Hill, go north to the Canadian border, then turn east until we hit the Atlantic, then south till we hit water again, and then west and north till we complete the circle. A victory lap, to mark the end of this chapter of our lives and the beginning of the next. Lynn retired six years ago, and I'm shutting down my business for the duration. We figure we have about three months before winter sets in and Kenny comes back home for winter break.

Notes from Lynn:

Our to-do list began with 84 items, each decorated with a little box that we x'd when done. On top was the Wizard Lapstop Stand ($108), which promptly broke. On bottom (pause for snickers) was a Porta Potti 345 with a pump flush ($174). One list led to another. Phone calls. Purchases. Boards and nails. Maps. Tour guides. The lists began to breed and produce offspring. Two tiny chairs from Ikea. The 30-year-old pot-of-pots for camping. Sunblock. Coffee filters. AAA maps…

x Tablecloth
x Passports for Canada
o Candles
o Find the jack
x Flash drive
x Seat covers

With three days to go, dozens of items were marked off (x), but the still-growing final list had 37 to go.

The most frustrating unfinished job is our itinerary, a wish list combined with a greedy desire to see everything and everybody between Bernal Hill and the rest of the nation. To wit: Niagara Falls, Carlsbad Caverns, Olympic National Park, Craters of the Moon, Dinosaur National Monument, for starters. In Salt Lake, (Lynn’s) brother, sister-in-law, two granddaughters and a great-granddaughter. In Boston, (Margo’s) aunt and cousins. In Oroville, (Margo’s) father, stepmother and, in Chico, her sister. In New Jersey and New Orleans, (Margo’s) sisters. More cousins: Austin, Trail (Minnesota), Astoria (Oregon). Old friends, former colleagues, ex-roommates, former students (Lynn), former classmates (Margo) in Pleasant Valley (New York), Bend (Oregon), Rogers (Arkansas), Atlanta, Syracuse, Georgetown, Brookyn, Manhattan, Jersey City. Big cities: Montreal, Boston, Portland, New York, Washington D.C., possibly Los Angeles and San Diego. Smaller cities: Victoria (B.C.), Missoula, Ishpeming (Michigan), Saugatuck (Michigan), Dover (Delaware), Sun City (Arizona), Boone (Iowa). Small towns: Brownville (Nebraska), Corvallis (Montana). Bird sanctuaries everywhere, including the Platte River birding road enshrined in columns by the late, great Norris Alfred in his weekly newspaper, the Polk Progress (he didn’t believe in progress). The list goes on. And on. And on.

Subject to change is every stop on the list except the centerpiece, a late October visit to Oberlin College where Kenny is a happy first-year student (“I love it”), Margo is a happy alumna (“I loved it"), and Lynn is a happy first-timer (“I love Margo and Kenny”).

Notes from Margo:

We bought a used minivan. Lynn did the heavy lifting on researching, test driving, and picking out the van.

Notes from Lynn:

With the friendly owner in the passenger seat, I drove his Dodge B250 Ram Van up Bernal Heights, down into the Bayview District and back home on Cesar Chavez Street. (A similar Dodge is pictured at right.) The camper, a conversion van almost 23 years old, handled well. Plenty of pep. Smooth ride. No surprise. The odometer was set at what the craigslist ad called “47,000 original miles (documented),” an astonishing 2,000 miles per year. The price was right: $3,500. I said, “I’ll buy it.” The owner smiled as I continued: “I’ll take it down to the garage on Folsom Street to have a checkup. I’ll pay for it, of course.”

Instead of a handshake, the retired educator sat back and said, “I will need a $500 deposit.” I was surprised, but I assumed he wanted to be protected in case the mechanic broke something or lightning struck the garage. I said, “OK. ” He continued: “It would be non-refundable.”

Let’s see. I would give him $500 so I could have a mechanic look for problems that might kill the deal.

I was tired. We wanted to spend three months in a camper. To rent a well-equipped minivan from Lost Campers would cost us about $4,000 or more. We decided to buy. No Winnebagos, tent trailers, camper shells. Not too big. Nothing we couldn’t walk away from. In over a month, I had considered “by owner” ads on craigslist for 14 conversion vans, 15 minivans and 14 VW Westfalias, Adventurewagons, Eurovans and Vanagon buses. We drove to San Mateo for a Westfalia, a great bargain at $3,000, and raised the pop top to find the fabric shredded and rotten. (At left, another VW pop-top camper.) We had decided to buy a Westfalia from a fellow inhabitant of Bernal Heights. The price was a steep $8,000, but the camper was in tip-top condition. It was so loaded that it had a rollup awning, allowing the seller to play his mandolin in jams at the California Bluegrass Festival in Grass Valley. He conscientiously advised us to read the mechanic’s report, and we did. We called the mechanic to ask about the 100 compression reading on Cylinder 1. Bad news, he said. The next day another buyer took the VW, compression reading or no. But by then we had been told that these aging VWs struggle up the Grapevine or Highway 50 at 40 or 45 miles per hour. Oh.


We looked at conversion vans with craigslist pitches worth quoting: “I am original owner, well maintained”… "I have 4 vehicles, which is 1 too many”… “I want to buy a truck, so my loss is your gain”… “Only 130,000 miles on this monster” … “Semi-full sofa bed.” We found further evidence that the Tweeter generation, and its forebears, don’t use the dictionary: “New tires and bakes” … “It runs excellant”… “Captin chairs” … “Break pad changed” … “Light switch panal.” We considered the claims for five Chevys, one Ford, one GMC, two Astros and five Dodge vans. “Excellent and strong,” said the ad for the 47,000-mile Dodge Ram with a Safari Package and a V-8 engine with overdrive. It continued:

Runs Perfect Interior Excellent-Captains Chairs and Bed (Converts to Bench Seating)-Ladder and Luggage Rack-Center Table-Stereo and Built-in Television-Small Refrig/Sink-Air Conditioning and Heating (Runs Excellent).

Never mentioned was the non-refundable deposit.

We turned instead to Margo’s do-it-yourself confidence that a minivan could be transformed from a little bus into a camper. We considered ads for three Odysseys, two Siennas, two Astros, and one each for Ford, Chrysler and Mercury. But we settled on one of the two Previas, a $3,900 purchase for a 1996 model that had been overhauled by an Oakland garage.

The sellers didn’t ask for a non-refundable deposit.

Notes from Margo:

We bought the Previa about about three weeks ago, and since then, things have moved along pretty quickly. We bought the van on a Monday. Tuesday I pulled the seats out of it. Wednesday and Thursday I designed and built the platform bed, and then ordered the mattress. Then I got started on the sewing... the curtains, the sheets, the quilt, the duvet cover. While I was sewing, Lynn put together the kitchen kit. That's his specialty when we go camping. I do the shelter and he sets up the kitchen. So he knows his camp kitchens.

That Westfalia had left Lynn with this image of himself under an awning by our little van, in his camp chair, playing his mandolin as the day wanes. So we went to talk to a guy about an awning. It turned out that our van isn't built right for a pull-out awning, so we're talking about improvising one. We sketched out one that I might be able to build.

We went to a camper store in Oakland and bought a little portable toilet. I sewed up a little cover for it so it doesn’t look like we have a portable toilet by our bed. It just looks like a cute little ottoman. Lynn went to another camp store in San Francisco and bought a water container I spent some time making little loops and brackets and snap-on rigs so everything is battened down while we drive.

I'm spending an inordinate amount of time on dealing with our bills for the time we're gone. I'm trying to get automatic pay for most of them, and just pay the rest in advance. Some of the autopays are very intuitive and easy to set up, as you'd think they'd be. The basic idea is I'm telling a company: Here's my bank account (or credit card). Take my money each and every month. You'd think they'd make it easy. Well some are, some aren't.

We found a renter for our house, a woman who doesn't mind sharing the place with my brother Benny, who lives with us. In the way of unexpected bonuses, she's a cat-lover, and Domino, our sometimes mean and psychotic cat, seems to like her.

Anyway, we went to pick up the mattress Friday, and it fit perfectly, which was a relief. (That's the handyhuman, at left.)

Not that I didn't expect it to be fine... It's just that my heritage, my Eastern European Jewish ancestors, taught me to expect that something will always go wrong… the Cossacks will come raving over the hill or the whole tribe will be exiled, or just the car will break down. So, I'm still waiting for the big problem here.

The mattress fit perfectly.

We stood and admired it with the guy from the foam mattress store, Alan, after he helped us put it into the van. He was asking about our trip, and then he said, "May I sing for you?" Well, of course!! He explained that this was called "Vagabond" from "Songs of Travel," a collection of poetry by Robert Louis Stevenson put to music by Ralph Vaughn Williams. Then he broke into song:

Give to me the life I love,
Let the lave go by me,
Give the jolly heaven above,
And the byway nigh me.
Bed in the bush with stars to see,
Bread I dip in the river -
There’s the life for a man like me,
There’s the life for ever.
And there we were on the sidewalk at 10th and Howard streets, with the trucks and taxis speeding by, and Alan sweetly singing about the rambling life. It was amazing. Turns out Alan trained as a classical singer before he started working as a clerk in a custom foam mattress store. We were so charmed and happy. It felt like a spontaneous blessing for our trip. And, of course, again I’m reminded why I love San Francisco so much – it’s not that unusual to find people with hidden talents in your everyday life.

Footnote from Lynn:

We need a name for our minivan. It isn’t easy. “Minnie” is associated with a Disney mouse, now 81 years old. “Previa” sounds too much like “previous,” as in question.

How about calling her “Palindrome”?

“To honor the former governor of Alaska”?

Not at all. It’s a backward name for A Toyota.

Margo, the classics major at Oberlin, came up with the Roman poet who wrote “The Aeneid.”

“Let’s call it Virgil!”

Because Aeneas wandered for seven years?

“No, because Dante chose the poet’s shade as his guide.”

Where to?

“Through hell.”

That’s not on our itinerary. We hope. How about “Louis”?


His middle name was preferred by the vagabond, Robert Louis Stevenson.


Not enough candidates. We need Samoa.

Suggestions welcome.

Miles today: 0

Miles so far: 0

Price of gas: $3.21/gallon

Notable: Bon Voyage dinner tonight.